On Friday, January 25, in Skinner Memorial Chapel, speaker Robert K. McLaughlin shared his story of his false conviction in 1979 as a murderer and felon. McLaughlin, since his exoneration in 1986, has focused his life on spreading his story and helping other wrongly convicted people; his story has been featured on “20/20” and “Dateline,” and was also featured in the 1991 made-for-television film “Guilty until Proven Innocent.” Perhaps to the surprise of many audience members, wrongful conviction is relatively frequent, particularly in cases based on eyewitness evidence. “It could happen to anybody—it could happen to you,” McLaughlin said. McLaughlin’s speech was entitled “Actually Innocent but Wrongly Convicted.”
A 1979 hold-up of forty people in a dark community park resulted in the death of one man who protested against three gunmen. Later, a 15-year-old who was part of the hold-up identified McLaughlin as one of the three men but not the shooter. People in the hold-up testified that McLaughlin was not involved, but was convicted despite these testimonies and his alibi.
McLaughlin spent seven years in “some of the toughest prisons around” and was continually transferred for security reasons. During his time in prison, McLaughlin says, he tried to be productive. He graduated from high school and received the equivalent of two years of college education. Although he had hope for being released, especially when a reporter from 20/20 came to interview him, he said “It’s very hard, once you are convicted, to reverse it; no one likes to admit their mistakes, including the justice system, which is sad.”
McLaughlin credits his release to his father, Harold Hohne, who “mounted a campaign to exonerate him.” McLaughlin was also awarded $1.4 million as compensation. But, he said, the money did not seem to compensate for the emotional and mental damage prison had caused. “When I got out I was lost—everything was changed, and I was bitter. I hated the system,” McLaughlin said.
Recently, McLaughlin has been an active member of the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN), which is part of the National Innocence Network. The IPMN, according to its website www.ipmn.org, seeks to “provide investigative and legal assistance to inmates with provable claims that they are actually innocent of the crimes they are imprisoned for” and “works to raise public awareness about the prevalence and causes of wrongful conviction as well as promotes substantive legal reforms to prevent future wrongful convictions.” The IPMN selects cases with “strong evidence of innocence” and also provides a service for law students to get involved in the justice system early.
McLaughlin focuses on bettering himself and the justice system. He helps review cases for the IPMN, which gets around 1,000 applications a year. McLaughlin hopes that he can draw attention to the common problem of wrongful accusation and spend the rest of his time with his family.
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